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In a Show of Bipartisan Support, House Backs Bush Pledge to Israel

June 24, 2004
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A vote in Congress overwhelmingly backing President Bush’s diplomatic assurances to Ariel Sharon suggests bipartisan and Jewish unity — but a closer reading reveals some fissures between Democrats and Republicans, and among pro-Israel lobbyists. The resolution passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday by 407-9 vote. As Bush did, the resolution recognizes “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers” in the West Bank, and rejects any Palestinian refugee “right of return” to Israel.

The vote is a clear turning point: Congress has strengthened Israel’s hand immeasurably in any future U.S.-brokered talks with the Palestinians by recognizing the historic shift in U.S. foreign policy outlined in Bush’s April 14 speech.

“It lays the foundation of American policy with regard to the future of Middle East peace on these critical core issues,” said Josh Block, a spokesman for ! the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who noted the rarity of bipartisanship in a highly charged political season.

Missing, however, is any explicit reference to the price the Israeli prime minister paid for the historic assurances: a pledge to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

The omission reflects differences over the Palestinians’ role in the process, between those who favor drawing the Palestinians back into talks and those happy to shut them out.

Americans for Peace Now said that leaving out the Gaza withdrawal — and the Palestinians — meant the dovish group could not support the resolution.

The resolution “fails to endorse the most important aspects of Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement proposal,” said Debra DeLee, APN’s president. “It fails to back the evacuation of Israeli settlers, which is a central reason why President Bush offered his political assurances to Sharon.”

Also opposing the resolution was Tikkun, another dovish group, ! which supports Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The resolution’s language was the result of negotiations between the offices of Reps. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader, and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip.

DeLay’s views are close to those of Sharon, who has done his best to sideline the current Palestinian Authority leadership in planning the withdrawal, and to those of right-wing Israelis who oppose a withdrawal.

Hoyer is closer to those in the pro-Israel community who — like the Bush administration — favor a Gaza withdrawal and hope it will help produce a more responsible Palestinian leadership willing to crack down on terrorism.

A Senate version of the resolution, also touted by leaders of both parties, does mention the Gaza withdrawal, reflecting greater cooperation between Bush and Senate Republicans. It also refers to Israel’s pledge to limit settlement growth and to the temporary nature of the West Bank security barrier.

It was unclear when majority leader Sen. Bill Frist (! R-Tenn.) and minority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) would propose the resolution.

Capitol Hill sources said Hoyer persuaded Democrats to back the House resolution by noting his influence on the resolution’s final language, such as repeated references to eventual Palestinian statehood.

The differences were reflected in the speeches representatives from each side gave in endorsing the bill. Democrats emphasized the withdrawal from Gaza and the opportunities it presented; Republicans emphasized the Palestinian failure to assume responsibility for controlling terrorism.

“When Prime Minister Sharon announced withdrawal from Gaza, and from some parts of the West Bank, I viewed it as a fresh, new opportunity for peace in the Middle East, which is in the national interest of our country, and in the international interest of the world,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader.

DeLay, for his part, didn’t even mention Gaza.

“The people of Israel are a! t war, and it is our responsibility to help them win it,” he said. “As long as the Palestinian Authority refuses to take the necessary steps to end terrorism within its ranks, we must stand with Israel.”

Supporters of the Gaza withdrawal said its omission from the text was odd, given that Sharon has staked his political career on the move.

“I don’t know what exactly they were thinking by not endorsing the Gaza withdrawal. Why punt on this and ignore it?” said M.J. Rosenberg, director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum, a group that backs U.S.-sponsored peace initiatives in the region. “Sharon surely would have wanted this endorsement by Congress of this withdrawal.”

Notably, in a statement thanking Congress for the resolution, Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon explicitly referred to the planned pullout.

“By strongly endorsing the principles set forth in President Bush’s April 14 letter, in response to Prime Minister Sharon’s proposed disengagement plan, the U.S. Congress took an important step in promoting peace and! stability in our region,” he said.

Despite the omission in the House bill, Rosenberg said, IPF backed the resolution because it helps map a way out of the current impasse between.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a start,” Rosenberg said, comparing it to other resolutions that he said have shown outright hostility to the Palestinians.

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